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Algerian Hostage Crisis: Islamist Militants Turning Sahara Into 'Theatre Of War' Warns Franco-African Expert

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ALGERIA
BP oil workers have been taken hostage | PA

Guerillas are waging a battle against Western interests in the vast Sahara desert, turing the region into a "theatre of war", an expert has warned.

Exiled Algerian and Mauritanian jihadists are teaming up with Libyan mercenaries who served under Gaddafi's brutal rule as well as disaffected Tuareg tribesmen in the new struggle, Dr Berny Sèbe, an expert in Franco-African relations at the University of Birmingham said.

And although these groups did not expect France to intervene in their struggle against the Malian government, they could take advantage of the situation to create a protracted conflict.

Well-versed in desert guerrilla tactics and with intimate knowledge of the terrain they are fighting on, these groups could prove difficult to tackle even with sophisticated surveillance systems.

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The BP oil base in Algeria

Dr Sèbe said: "The terrorist assault on a BP oil base in southern Algeria reminds us of the challenges posed by the immense desert space covered by the Sahara, where borders are difficult to guard, let alone to seal off.

"It also brings the issue of terrorist Islamist groups back to Algeria, where they developed in the early 1990s before the Algerian army routed them, forcing their relocation in Mali where ex-president Toumani Toure had the weakness to tolerate them.

"With the ongoing French-led intervention in Mali to help the central government contain Islamist attempts to take over the country, the Sahara is becoming a resourceful open space for terrorist organisations which will certainly adapt their tactics to the new war conditions prevailing in the region."

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Algeria Sahara Desert Tuaregs collecting firewood by pulling down dead trees.

Little is known about the group claiming responsibility for the current kidnappings - the militants who refer to themselves as Katibat Moulathamine, meaning "The Masked Ones".

But a Mauritanian news agency has reported they are under the command of veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which would link them directly to the Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group which is at the forefront of the war in Mali.

Made up mainly of Algerian terrorists who moved into the region following their defeat by the Algerian government, AQIM are allied to two main groups supporting the rebels' drive towards Mali's capital, Bamako.

One is the the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), a group which Dr Sèbe said is linked to drug trafficking.

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Libyan mercenaries are teaming up with Algerian and Mauritanian exiles

The other is Ansar Dine, an Islamist group led by traditionally moderate Tuareg desert nomads who were radicalised by Bamako's rejection of their desire for greater autonomy in the 1990s.

Together with pressures and opportunities born from the Arab Spring, which has seen both weapons and seasoned fighting men arrive from Libya, the scene has been set for a major confrontation which threatens to engulf the region.

Dr Sèbe said: "Striking a BP base-camp for oil workers a thousand miles from the Malian theatre of war sends a strong message about their determination and capability.

"Regardless of whether the attackers came from Mali or were a local affiliated group, they demonstrate that their capacity to harm remains strong."

With yesterday's attack, they have also demonstrated to the West that they mean business.